Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

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Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the darlings of Hollywood when the US entered WWII as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.  Lombard, being patriotic and decisive, determined that she and Clark should involve themselves in the war effort.  While her famous husband served as president of the Hollywood Victory Committee, Lombard was engaged to sell bonds in the heartland. On January 12, 1942, she set off for her home state of Indiana and as a true star and rousing presence, she sold two million dollars worth of bonds. Flush with success and anxious to get home to her handsome, and frequently roving husband, she deviated from plan and instead of taking the train insisted upon flying despite the misgivings of traveling companions, mother Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent Otto Winkler, a personal friend of Gable’s who had been assigned to accompany her. The fierce persistence and determination that had built her career and led to marriage to two of Hollywood’s most eligible and bankable leading men, ultimately contributed to her death when the plane crashed into the side of Mt. Potosi following take-off in Las Vegas on the last leg of their trip home.  The crash led to national headlines and a dangerous search for survivors, then bodies.  The story of this tragedy, the events leading up to it and its horrific aftermath are related in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.

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Author Robert Matzen is an engaging writer and Fireball has an interesting structure. Two threads alternate chapters until they merge midway creating one story that brings significant players to a set point in time, that of the crash itself. Changing tone as it moves between the Hollywood hills and the sturdy landscape of pilots, military servicemen, airline personnel, and the everyday folks with whom they intersect, these two worlds each have their own voice.  This latter thread, grounded in All-American wholesomeness, is by far the strongest of the two in this examination of the crash that took the life of not only Lombard but the other twenty-one people aboard the plane.

Matzen brings experience as a Hollywood historian and author, NASA communications specialist, and documentary filmmaker to this effort; he is uniquely qualified for such an enterprise.  The book starts strong as he relates his account of scaling the mountain and viewing the scattered remnants of the crash that still remain on Mt. Potosi. He accessed TWA’s confidential files, examined the results of two federal investigations and conducted numerous interviews with those personally connected to these ill-fated passengers. His own prior knowledge lends authenticity to aspects of this story, particularly those involving the flight, aeronautics, and the relevant history of air travel.

When residing in the Hollywood realm, Matzen indulges in a bit of salaciousness with these swiftly moving chapters taking on a tabloid tone. At times dated and sexist language is used to presumably set the story within its era.  This is unfortunate as it is unnecessary. The story of Gable and Lombard, her career and their love affair is dynamic and arresting in and of itself; her dramatic sudden death makes it even more so.  There’s also some critical inferences around Hollywood stars.  It is intimidated that Lombard’s first husband William Powell’s self-absorption and emotional withdrawal blinded him to fiancé Jean Harlow’s sinking physical health.  Similarly, it is related that Gable and Lombard resented having to attend the subsequent funeral for MGM’s platinum-coifed ‘baby’, as Harlow was then known, being forced to attend by studio brass. These types of characterizations may not play well with many fans of  the silver screen’s most beloved stars.

One gets the sense too that Matzen doesn’t care much for Gable.  He refers to him repeatedly as the king, as Clark Gable was once named the King of Hollywood in coast-to-coast polling, a moniker that almost seems to take on a mocking tone as the actor goes through the most challenging and heartrending period of his life.  The assessment that he is a self-absorbed narcissist, “doing a lot of taking and little giving”, much like Powell, doesn’t seem to fit with other accounts but certainly a star of that magnitude might have that aspect to his character.  However, it is seems strikingly odd to drive that point home in a chronicle of his greatest heartbreak.  Given that Lombard was at the height of her success, having found  her comedic timing and a marriage to MGM’s top draw, the nation mourned her loss for its own sake but also for Gable’s; many of his contemporaries have related that he was never the same after the tragedy.  He lost a woman he appreciated infinitely after her death, as is human nature, and the nation lost not only a glamorous comedienne but a potential bond-raising powerhouse for the war effort and a patriotic American. Her death was tragic in many respects and underscored the losses already occurring in families across an anxious country.

Fireball consists of much that was already known but succeeds in weaving it into a compelling story.  People on the ground and in the air, those who lost their lives and those who remained behind are each in turn spotlighted.  There’s a richness to this approach.  As readers we are taken back to January 1942, a place, a time, a tragedy.  But there is also a drawback and it is significant: the author has created a novelization of actual events.  While many details, exhaustively researched, are absolutely fact or surely true, other aspects are a bit speculative. Missing information is filled in to facilitate narrative flow. Thoughts of those who die in the crash are shared, despite the fact that they never had an opportunity to relate these inner musings. Gable’s own private thoughts are revealed, personal recollections only he could have known.  As such it is clear there is some speculation involved, informed and educated surely, but nevertheless speculation. This aspect at times made me cautious and as the book progressed  I read with an increasingly skeptical eye. While it is clear that the author has done extensive admirable research, I was uncomfortable with his putting thoughts into the minds of actual people; this is not a historical novel yet frequently reads like one.  While much of this revealing of inner life and shared moments comes from interviews that were published at the time, it remains difficult to know what is based on research as opposed to what might be based  upon “extensive study of the subject”, as the author characterizes his approach to Gable.  Personally, I would’ve preferred an entirely fact-based accounting.

Initially there is some suggestion that this in-depth examination will reveal the true cause for the crash; this is not the case.  However this does not detract from the book as the analysis that examines multiple potential causes is extensive; there were many and as is frequently true, sometimes it’s a congruence of unfortunate circumstances and events that contribute to tragedy.

Despite these misgivings,  I  found Fireball a compelling read, yet was relieved when I finished this one. Those relatively new to the story of Gable and Lombard will find a mini-bio of Carole and a very in-depth look at the crash and its surrounding events.  While I knew a fair amount going in, there was still enough to keep my interest, mostly surrounding the other passengers, personnel and the aftermath at the scene.  Much of that was riveting (at times grisly – be forewarned), and worthwhile.  The book certainly highlights the loss to the screen, her loved ones and the country that occurred with the death of Carole Lombard, the first Hollywood casualty of WWII.

Note: This review is for the Expanded 2017 Edition, published by Goodknight Books

This post is the sixth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews by fellow bloggers,  please check with her throughout the summer!! I’ve really enjoyed participating and am definitely convinced that these book reviews can be a lot of fun.  Here’s to cool Autumn nights curled up with a good book 🙂

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